Windows Phone Game Review: Buzzwords

I’m a sucker for word games; board games like Scrabble and Boggle are mainstays in my household. Naturally my obsession with spelling extends to videogames, with PopCap’s Bookworm games numbering among my favorites. But PopCap has yet to bring the iOS version of Bookworm to Windows Phone. Indie developer M80 Games – the folks behind the puzzler Pirate’s Mind – has risen to the occasion with their latest title, Buzzwords. This bee-based spelling game should tide Windows Phone gamers over quite nicely until Bookworm comes around - if ever.

Spelling bee

The playing field in Buzzwords consists of a honeycomb suspended over a vat of honey. Each hexagon on the honeycomb contains a random letter. Your goal is to spell as many words as possible until the timer runs out. To do this, just tap each letter in sequence and then tap the last letter in the series when you’re ready to spell a word. The honey from the letters you used drops into the pot and your score increases. The honey itself adds to your score or timer, depending on the mode.

Buzzwords really differentiates itself from similar games with its combo system. Once the player has created his or her first word and emptied its honey, the letters stay on screen for several seconds. During this time, the next word must be built using one of the previous word’s letters. If you’re able to do so, you’ll get some extra points; if not, you just lose a few seconds waiting for new letters to replace the old ones. Make the next match really quickly and the letters even catch on fire.

The combo system certainly rewards fast thinking, but it doesn’t perfectly mix with the template from which Buzzwords is built. Instead of scanning the entire field to make the most interesting match, the player is often forced to just build short words from the clump of letters attached to the initial word. For me, the best part of Bookworm is trying to make long-ass words, not short ones.

A similar issue involves blue beetles. Just as Bookworm had flaming letters that needed to be used before they reached the bottom of the screen, the blue beetles here will end the game if they make it to the honey pot unhindered. But as I already mentioned, the player is often tethered to an existing bunch of letters, making it a chore to go after far-off beetles. You can let the letters you’re working with disappear in order to start building a word wherever a beetle lies, but the mechanics there sort of clash.

Stars and Boosters

As you play Buzzwords, you’ll earn stars in addition to points. The stars can then be spent at the start of a new game on various boosters. These have beneficial effects like extending play time, reducing the number of beetles that spawn, and more. Boosters are only good for one game, so you have to keep earning stars if you want to use them. They don’t really make a huge difference to the gameplay, but a little customization is always nice.

Game modes

Buzzwords has two game modes: BuzzMode and Marathon. BuzzMode lasts for three minutes, and honey collected provides bonus points. Marathon starts at three minutes, but honey collected adds additional time. Games in either mode can end much sooner if you let a beetle reach the honey pot.

While Marathon games can outlast BuzzMode games by several minutes, they still feel a bit too short. Yeah, you gain more time as you find words. But it takes time to scan for words, especially since you’re almost always tethered to the word that started the most recent combo. In practice, it might take 30 seconds to find a word (when stumped) only to gain a 10 second timer bonus.

That’s my main complaint about Buzzwords: time limits constrain the fun of finding words. I want to scan for words at my leisure, building the longest possible words. But the combo timer and especially the main timer are always working against that style of play. The combo timer alone wouldn’t be so bad since it’s just rewarding a little pep in your step. But Buzzwords really needs an unlimited time mode. The developer would need to balance the difficulty accordingly, making sure the threat of beetles keeps the game challenging, but the payoff would be worth it. I hear M80 will do just that very soon.

Birds and the bees

Like Pirate’s Mind before it, Buzzwords looks quite sharp for an indie title. The main game screen’s  letter-filled honeycomb, surrounded by foliage on the sides and a honey put below, cleverly combines the concept of word finding with the bee theme. Some sharp animations and cute bee and beetle artwork instill extra personality.

Buzzwords’ sound effects add a lot to the game too. I love that each additional letter makes a higher chime as you spell out a word. A high-pitched voice warns when time’s about to be up, too. The only aspect of the sound that falls flat is the music. The single bouncy tune gets old super-quickly. Naturally it can be turned off, and the Options screen even reminds players that they can play their own tunes from the Windows Phone Music Hub.

Long-term goals

Many indie puzzle games tend to revolve around earning points and nothing else. Buzzwords is no exception, but it does at least track a few player stats such as the number of words found and longest combo. It would be cool to see additional data added, such as displaying the player’s longest words.

Online leaderboards (using the Mogade system) for each game mode could potentially add to the replay value, provided they were well-implemented. Unfortunately for now, only the day’s top scores are tracked. Daily leaderboards are by no means a bad thing, but they don’t mean much in the absence of all-time leaderboards. Thankfully the developer plans to add long-term leaderboards in a future update.

Overall impression

Buzzwords is a fine sophomoric Windows Phone effort from the folks at M80 Games. They’ve clearly put plenty of care into the UI and art design. The game just needs a few more features like an unlimited time mode and proper online leaderboards to become a standout title... And the developers have promised to add those soon. For only a buck, fans of word-finding games can’t go wrong with Buzzwords.

Buzzwords costs 99 cents and there is a free trial. To add it to your honey pot, go here on the Marketplace.

Paul Acevedo

Paul Acevedo is the Games Editor at Windows Central. A lifelong gamer, he has written about videogames for over 15 years and reviewed over 350 games for our site. Follow him on Twitter @PaulRAcevedo. Don’t hate. Appreciate!